Artist Jenny Odell’s new book How to Do Nothing, is actually about how to find the strength to do something.
Many writers have sounded the alarm over our increasingly fractured attention, but Odell’s book is not about blocking the internet or retreating from Facebook. Odell does focus on the importance of reclaiming attention and focus, but she also tells people what to do when they’re not staring at Facebook: go out into the natural world instead. Learn the names of the plants, the history of the region, the songs of the birds. When you can distinguish sounds and petals and regions, you will never be able to see the same way again.
The Verge spoke to Odell about the importance of place, the role of technology in grounding us, and different types of stillness.
One of the most interesting parts of the book to me is when you critique people who say that attention is a structural problem, and it’s the responsibility of tech companies to divert it in an ethical way. That’s a view we frequently hear, but you say that it takes away our agency and ability to decide what we want to look at since it’s still the companies funneling our attention. What else is missing from this argument that companies can help us reclaim our attention?
I think one really important aspect that comes up in any form of the attention economy, whether it’s disempowering or empowering, is assuming that attention is like currency. Most currency is standardized. We don’t barter anymore, so it relies on the idea of standardized this and uniformity and consistency. And in my experience, attention isn’t like that. You have forms of shallow attention, you have really deep attention, you pay different kinds of attention to different things in different situations.
Differentiation and proliferation of attention are things you can learn, which is one of the reasons I talk so much about art in that chapter. That dimension of attention and human perception is missing from that formulation for me.
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